It would seem that the more different people tell the same lie, the easier it is for others to believe it as the truth. I have already discussed in several articles and in my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film, that there is a segregated relationship between how African-American films are funded, distributed and exhibited vis-à-vis how white American films are funded, distributed and exhibited.
It is this racially segregated and unequal relationship that aids in holding back African-American films (independent and commercial) from the narrative and stylistic advances often explored in white American and international cinema. To understand this aesthetic segregation we have to first acknowledge that there is always –every year- a certain amount of white films produced and distributed for prestige (Academy Awards, international awards and noble causes) rather than for profit.
For instance, no one at Fox Searchlight Pictures was expecting the great cinematic poet Terrence Malick’s work, THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) to be a 500 million dollar blockbuster when it was released this Summer, but the film which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, premiered at the Cannes film festival after a two year delay by the auteur himself, where it finally won the coveted Palme D’or. The film has played domestically and internationally earning little more than 12 million dollars as of September 1st in America from a production budget of 32 million dollars with high critical acclaim.(1) What can be deduced from this example is that white Hollywood creates and maintains its national and international cultural preeminence by funding, distributing and exhibiting certain films that are in no way made to return steep first and second weekend short term box office profits, but instead certain films are made to enhance the richness of white Hollywood’s cultural legacy and seduce those critical of Hollywood’s greed that the business is not always about profit: it is also about the art.
The truth is Hollywood makes a fortune on a handful of blockbuster films and their sequels that make millions upon millions of dollars domestically and across the globe. Yet, there is another truth repeated by author Mario Puzo on the first page of his book, THE GODFATHER, where he quoted from 19th century French writer, Honoré de Balzac that is à propos to white Hollywood’s success : “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”(2) The crime behind the fortunes of Hollywood which will be discussed in this article is the greatest lie ever told to the black filmmaker.
The Lie: African-American films have little to no international market appeal.
This single lie which has been repeated by white producers, Hollywood insiders, agents and critics alike is the single greatest lie that has both swindled many African-American filmmakers from their just deserved foreign licensing rights and contributes to the lower production budgets, shorter development times and general lack of narrative and stylistic risk taking in African-American films commercial and independent vis-à-vis white films commercial or independent. As I stated in SLAVE CINEMA:
“Ironically, this notion that no one is interested in African-American films outside of the African-American community was started during the spark in the production of African-American films in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Many Hollywood executive power brokers literally swindled many African-American filmmakers out of their share of foreign licensing rights by convincing them that their urban themed films would have little audience interest outside of the U.S. market. We would do well to note here that surviving copies of Oscar Micheaux’s work have been found as far away as Spain (Cf., Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, Robinson, 261), so there is and always has been an international audience for African-American films but the whites that control the industry have a vested interest in telling us that there is not… Even a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter about the success of Tyler Perry states that,” execs, while careful to emphasize that they want to produce more fare for black audiences, say that the business picture is more complicated than it would appear on the surface. Advantages like new audiences for lower-budget product are offset by certain disadvantages, like limited international potential.” (pgs. 119-120) (3)
It would seem unnecessary to have to ask that if African-American music and musicians have an international appeal, if African-American athletes are known the world over, and if African-American fashion and dances are known around the world, why would African-American films have little international box office appeal? Even when we listen to the hottest French rapper today, La Fouine (pronounced: La Foo-knee) in the song Gucci Sale Musique (Trans: Dirty Gucci Music) from his latest double CD, we hear references to African-American music in the lyric:
“Je suis Notorious BIG, bitch je suis, Ready to Die.” (Trans: I am Notorious BIG Bitch, I’m ready to die.)
If we search YouTube carefully we see Swedish and Belgian youths, Crip walking, and youths in Switzerland sagging their pants with oversized hoodies and NY baseball caps on, the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce playing basketball in China and hip-hop fashions worn in the streets of Japan; why wouldn’t every African-American filmmaker with a Hollywood contract demand that his or her foreign licensing rights be respected? Why aren’t all African-American independent filmmakers making sure that the DVD’s of their films contain at least two different foreign language subtitle tracks or at least one foreign language voice dub track? Why? I believe that the destructive power of the lie that African-American films have little to no international market appeal takes advantage of African-American mentalities that have been shaped by 400 years of slavery’s oppression. That is to say that the lie gains its power and is often accepted as true because of the way the lasting legacy of slavery has shaped our mentalities and curtailed the expectations we associate with our racial identity. But the most persuasive tool that seduces us to accept the lie that African-American films have little to no international market appeal is that the coveted Hollywood Contract is a symbol of status and division among African-American filmmakers.
Whether or not you believe in the veracity of the “Willie Lynch Letter” as a doctrine of white supremacist control over African-Americans during the era of slavery, the gilded ideal of the Hollywood Contract has actually been the most powerful tool used to divide and ‘control’ African-American filmmakers since Spike Lee’s deal with Columbia pictures to fund and distribute his second feature film, SCHOOL DAZE (1988). Whether that contract with a major Hollywood studio is a P&A deal (Prints and Advertising), Negative Pick-up, First Look, etc, the contract itself and the major studio attached to it becomes a dividing line between the haves and the have nots; or in keeping with the theme from Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE, the wanna-be’s and the jiggaboos. After SCHOOL DAZE and later Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991) the Hollywood Contract became a status symbol that divided most practicing and would be African-American filmmakers into two distinct categories and deliberately pitted them against one another:
1) The House Negro Filmmaker (also known as the commercial filmmaker)
2) The Field Negro Filmmaker (also known as the independent filmmaker)
The House Negro Filmmaker tries desperately to please his white masters with a successful profit making product using A-list actors, generic story lines, conventional action and safe non-threatening bourgeois ideals that appeal to both white and black audiences. On the other hand, The Field Negro Filmmaker attempts to represent reality on-screen the way he or she believes a majority of African-Americans see their everyday social realities. The Field Negro Filmmaker wants to make a successful profit making film with b-list or unknown actors, a race specific story line, conventional action but with threatening street ideals that upset the bourgeois ideals of both white and black audiences. Whether you please your masters or you please your brethren it is very possible that neither filmmaker is actually pleasing him or herself as an artist.
The Hollywood Contract (on par with the status provided by the good government job, the good factory job in the African-American community) changes the practice of filmmaking into a status seeking enterprise. The House Negro Filmmaker with a Hollywood Contract is privileged with the ability to ‘hob-nob’ with the A-list stars and celebrities; he or she is perceived as having ‘made it’ to friends and family; their film is seen on screen and occasionally on cable and satellite television. But the down side of The House Negro Filmmaker is that they have been rendered powerless in the production and development of their own subsequent works. Often the studio interferes with their work in the form of budgetary restrictions, usually citing the lie that African-American films do poorly in the international market as the reason. Their scripts are placed in ‘turn around’ (industry jargon for ‘not at this time’) or their films underperform due to script revisions, ratings board interference, foreshortened development timetables, poor advertising, even limited screen ratios. Thus, The House Negro Filmmaker, like the House Negro who served his white masters inside their plush antebellum estates, has to perform specific duties to maintain his privileges and status by learning to stay in his place, so he is still a slave; he is still un-free. The Hollywood Contract is more of a shackle than it is a key. Not to diminish the work of all House Negro Filmmakers, since some of their films usually expand Hollywood’s restricted representations of race by casting African-Americans in roles usually reserved for whites while simultaneously pleasing those African-Americans that adhere to conventional bourgeois ideals.
By contrast, The Field Negro Filmmaker seeks the status of the Hollywood Contract but only on the terms that his or her first film, reveals the way they actually believe it is on the streets for African-Americans. (See: The Realist Tendency, Part One) The Field Negro Filmmaker usually invests his or her own money into the film or the money of trusted friends, family or funds gathered by any means necessary to bring to the screen an aspect of African-American life thought of as suppressed or under-represented by commercial Hollywood films and House Negro Filmmakers. Whether gritty “Get out of the Game” street dramas or weed induced comedies, The Field Negro Filmmaker’s work can only be validated in the end by the attainment of The Hollywood Contract. In the eyes of family and friends, The Field Negro Filmmaker is a broke failure until he can secure that Hollywood Contract and insulate himself with the privileges of the status it bestows upon the signer. The Field Negro Filmmaker usually accepts the lie that his or her urban themed film will not play well in international markets because they have very little knowledge about urban cultures overseas, do not speak a second language, and are blindly concerned with the urban African-American community as their sole target audience. If the House Negro Filmmaker has to accept the lie as a prerequisite to the offer of a The Hollywood Contract, then the Field Negro Filmmaker accepts the lie on the basis of his or her own ignorance of the value of their work in markets other than those considered strictly African-American. Not to disrespect the work of all Field Negro Filmmakers, some of their work does call attention to aspects of African-American social realities that are suppressed or deliberately overlooked by mainstream Hollywood cinema.
I have yet to explain why foreign licensing rights are so important to all filmmakers and particularly to those of color. Let me begin with the fact that a large percentage of Hollywood’s worldwide box office grosses come from overseas markets. A quick glance at the box office totals of almost any American produced film on websites like ‘boxofficemojo.com’ will, more often than not, reveal an equal or higher amount of international box office grosses in comparison with domestic grosses. The additional profits associated with foreign licensing rights,” allows white filmmakers a wider margin of error when judging the box office appeal of a film against the artistic purpose and integrity of a film. This wider margin of error encourages certain white filmmakers to experiment with style, dialogue, the presentation of action, editing, setting as well as allowing these white filmmakers to take chances on subject matter and its overall narrative presentation.” (pg.16, SLAVE CINEMA) It is as a direct consequence of the denial of foreign licensing rights to African-American filmmakers that there exists, in my opinion, a segregated and unequal divide between African-American filmmakers and white filmmakers.
Returning to the issue of how the illusions associated with The Hollywood Contract pits African-American filmmakers against each other, we see how the competition involved in getting a film noticed by the industry (through festivals, word-of-mouth, social media networks) causes the House Negro Filmmaker to look down upon the Field Negro Filmmaker as an uncouth, retrograde threat to the status and privileges he believes he has worked so hard to achieve. In fact, the House Negro Filmmaker usually develops selective amnesia and forgets that he was once a Field Negro Filmmaker and had to raise money for his first film by hook or by crook. To illustrate this analogy we need go back in time and look at the tenuous and volatile relationship between Spike Lee and Matty Rich. Matty Rich launched his filmmaking career with the 1991 independent film, STRAIGHT OUTTA BROOKLYN, which was financed with credit cards and donations. He would be our Field Negro Filmmaker who attained a Hollywood Contract for his next film, THE INKWELL (1994) which received mixed reviews and was a commercial failure.
Spike Lee, of course, began as a Field Negro Filmmaker with his first feature length independent film, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT in 1986. When he signed his Hollywood Contract with Columbia pictures for SCHOOL DAZE he had successfully transitioned into House Negro Filmmaker status. It is well known that Spike Lee spewed much vitriol against Matty Rich allegedly because he didn’t go to film school and was, ”ignorant,” in Spike’s opinion. (4) Yet only a few years later Spike would have his choke chain yanked by Hollywood when Warner Bros. refused to increase the budget of his epic bio-film MALCOLM X (1992). He would have to go back to his Field Negro Filmmaker roots and raise money from sources outside of Hollywood to complete that film and later several others.
The privileges and status associated with the fabled Hollywood Contract often blinds the House Negro Filmmaker from his or her roots and causes them to see the Field Negro Filmmaker as a competitive threat to their illusion of artistic control in the white controlled Hollywood industry. Matty Rich’s filmmaking career may have stalled and failed for several other reasons, but the hatred and anger between he and his fellow African-American filmmaker, Spike Lee, certainly blinded both of them from the Janus faced nature of The Hollywood Contract. So if you, like many of us, have ever wondered why successful African-American filmmakers and stars only rarely attempt to unite and help those up and coming in the industry, it’s not because of what’s written in the contract that is preventing them, but rather the illusion of status and privileges associated with The Hollywood Contract that divides and ‘controls’ the African-American filmmaker and changes their perception by causing them to see others as a competitive threat.
My only suggestion for a way out of this, for lack of a better phrase,” Hollywood trick bag,” is a radical one. I believe that all of the African-American filmmakers who have signed Hollywood Contracts wherein which they were denied their foreign licensing rights should band together and file a class action lawsuit against all of the parties involved. Whether these filmmakers win or lose the case would not be the measure of the lawsuit’s success or failure, but instead the lawsuit and the controversy it would inevitably create would make all filmmaker’s of color aware of the importance, the significance and their rights to foreign licensing when and if they are ever offered the gilded Hollywood Contract. Moreover, if these filmmakers should win they could use the money to start and maintain a “Collard Greens Circuit” as I have described in a previous article as an alternative means for funding and distributing African-American cinema. The crime behind the great fortunes of Hollywood and the impoverishment of African-American cinema has to be corrected. If white controlled Hollywood wants to keep a segregated relationship between how white films are funded, distributed and exhibited and African-American films then perhaps a truly segregated cinema, where we keep our profits to sustain and control our own images would show them that a house divided cannot stand, but that if you build another house it surely can.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.
(1) These box office totals are subject to change. Download date 9/3/11. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=treeoflife.htm
(2) Cf., page 9, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, New American Library, 1969 New York: New York.
(3) Cf., “Perry’s Success has black films in fashion” by Steven Zeitchik in The Hollywood Reporter, October 17, 2007.
(4) Cf., “Spike Lee on Filmmaking,” Metcalfe Nasser, www.blackfilm.com, download date 9/3/11.